“The eleventh hour,” which too often describes when I write these posts, comes from a biblical reference at the beginning of Matthew 20: “About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day doing nothing?’ ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.” (NIV)
In Matthew’s time, manual laborers worked for twelve hours a day, but sometimes, in a last-ditch attempt to finish the day’s scheduled work, laborers were hired at the eleventh hour and, because of the urgency, were paid the full day’s wages. Today, “at the eleventh hour” means “at the last possible instant.”
This is the kind of short, interesting phrase origin story — only one of 400 — that you can expect throughout Andrew Thompson’s new book, Hair of the Dog to Paint the Town Red: The Curious Origins of Everyday Sayings and Fun Phrases (Ulysses Press).
If you’ve ever nursed any interest in word and phrase origins, this book contains plenty of the stories you already know — like “throwing down the gauntlet” (from the age of chivalry), “giving the thumbs-up” (from Roman gladiatorial games), and “hanging by a thread” (from the story of Damocles). But there are bound to be some surprises in here for even the most zealous logophile. Who knew, for example, that “tarred with the same brush” came from a treatment for ill sheep? Or that “eating humble pie” originated from an actual meat pie? Or that “mad as a hatter” originally referred to milliners with mercury nitrate poisoning?
Thompson’s entries include not only each phrase’s origin story and its current meaning but also an example sentence for the phrase, which is a great tool for someone who is unfamiliar with a particular idiom or for whom English is a second language.
Not all word histories are cut and dried, though. Some phrases have multiple, conflicting stories about their origins. “Rule of thumb” is a good example; I know at least three different stories about where this phrase for “general principle” came from. “In some cases,” Thompson writes, “the discussion of a single expression could fill half the pages in this book. For these phrases, the most compelling view has been chosen.”
Compelling may be in the eye of the beholder, but the histories are well written and (presumably) well researched.
Unfortunately, the writing has little personality. The entries are not as dry or clinical as, say, dictionary definitions, but enjoyment of this book relies strictly on the surprises inherent in the histories; memorable turns of phrase and outright witticisms are few and far between.
To put it another way, this book could be a good reference work, but it isn’t the kind of book you’d want to sit down and read from cover to cover.
But even as a reference work, Hair of the Dog‘s organization is lacking too. Instead of listing the phrases and idioms in straight alphabetical order, this book is divided into fifteen chapters, with each chapter holding phrases from a specific discipline or category based on those phrases’ origins. That means that you might not know where to look for information about a specific phrase. For example, if you want to know about the phrase “pie in the sky,” it doesn’t appear in Chapter 10, “Bring Home the Bacon: Culinary Delights,” but in Chapter 5, “On the Bandwagon: The Political Realm.”
The individual chapters don’t seem to be organized in any way that I can see, either — certainly not alphabetically. Chapter 9, “In the Doghouse: Literature,” for example, begins with “world is your oyster” and ends with “goody-two-shoes.”
The result is that anyone using this as a resource, and not reading it from cover to cover, must rely on the index to find what they’re looking for. Thankfully, there is an index, and it seems up to the task.
Hair of the Dog to Paint the Town Red is good, light reading for budding logophiles and a decent high school graduation gift for someone planning on majoring in English or a related field. Because of its short entries and lack of linearity, it’s also a great book to have around for those times and places where you find yourself stuck somewhere and just need a little something to read for a few minutes.
Disclosure: Ulysses Press sent me a free review copy of this book.